Progress Report: Five Years of Data Affirm Charter Schools’ Worth (1st of 2 parts)
Indiana Writers Group column for Aug. 22 and thereafter
Editors: This is the first of two columns assessing the progress of charter schools in Indiana.
INDIANAPOLIS – Five years into Indiana’s experience with charter schools, it’s hard to find any critics left. Waiting lists exist at many of the schools. Test scores are rising. And perhaps best of all, the reform has prompted a more competitive spirit in traditional public school systems.
“A big success,” is how Kevin Teasley puts it. Teasley is president and CEO of the GEO Foundation, sponsor of three Twenty-First Century Charter Schools in Indiana and a fourth that just opened in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Indiana has 40 charter schools in 14 cities and a handful more in the pipeline. Under state law, these pioneering new schools can be established by school corporations, four-year public universities and the mayors of “consolidated cities,” a power unique to the mayor of Indianapolis. With a few exceptions, all of Indiana’s charters have been sponsored by Mayor Bart Peterson or Ball State University. And while not every one can claim success as defined by ISTEP scores and the federal No Child Left Behind law, Teasley and his colleagues are effusive in assessing progress to date.
“After five years, more than 4,000 students in Indianapolis and 11,000 statewide are enjoying new options that did not exist five years ago,” Teasley said. “The private sector is getting involved in ways they never could have imagined by actually creating a school of their dreams and not just complaining about what the public schools are not doing. And the public schools are starting to compete.”
Charters are themselves public schools, but with greater flexibility in scheduling and curriculum. That flexibility, which encourages innovation, appears to be having an impact on achievement.
Christel House Academy in Indianapolis, one of the 11 inaugural charter schools, has grown from 276 students its first year to nearly 400 and has seen test scores go up steadily. In 2002, less than a third of its students passed both math and language sections of ISTEP; last year 67.5 percent did. Although its principal is no fan of the No Child Left Behind Act, the school met all its requirements last year for adequate yearly progress, or AYP. The Academy features a longer school day and 189 instructional days a year instead of the state required minimum of 180.
“It has taken lots of hard work,” said Principal Carey Dahncke. “At Christel House we work to develop the whole child– mentally, physically and socially. Additionally, we work to keep focused on our objectives. Both the focus and holistic attention help to develop a better student. Traditional public schools tend to allow their teachers to be pulled in too many directions for too many reasons. Keeping your eye on the target and empowering teachers to teach is very important. “
A similar philosophy drives Irvington Community School in Indianapolis, which met AYP goals last year with a 69 percent ISTEP passage rate. “We have gone back to a principle that so much of American educators have forgotten: Small schools work, big schools don’t,” said President Tim Ehrgott. “Our students are not numbers, nor do we spend our whole day managing the process of the building. We can actually teach.”
The school has a 200-day academic calendar, which means not only more instructional time for students but less exposure “to the culture so many of them are exposed to out of school: video games, My Space, cable TV, etc. And check out the calendars of a lot of the countries that are outperforming us in international tests.” Japan, where the school year is 231 days, is a case in point. Its students consistently rank in the top three in the world in standardized math and science tests.
The principals agree test scores are just one measure of success and that other developments are just as noteworthy. Ehrgott said charter schools are keeping in Indianapolis families who might otherwise have moved to the suburbs.
Teasley said changes in Indianapolis Public Schools under Superintendent Eugene G. White are in part a response to charter school innovations. “IPS is competing and doing things today that they should have done years ago. They are creating smaller learning communities. They are partnering with universities. They are creating more magnets.”
In just five years, charters have proved their worth. But there are challenges ahead, which may require tweaking in the law by the next legislature. Those will be the topic of the next column.
Andrea Neal is a teacher at St. Richard’s’ School in Indianapolis and adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at email@example.com.